The Biden administration's domestic approach to foreign policy

The Biden administration's domestic approach to foreign policy
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In a 1977 Foreign Affairs article by then-President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Bayless Manning, coined the word “intermestic” to underscore the connection between foreign and domestic policy. Manning described a presidency weakened by Vietnam and Watergate and at the mercy of Congress.

A book on that era, “Foreign Policy by Congress” by Franck and Weisband, detailed the multitude of actions that thwarted executive intent. 

Those were formative years for then-Senator Joe BidenJoe BidenPutin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting How the infrastructure bill can help close the digital divide Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE, and today his stated approach reflects respect for Congress’s role. He has reached out to Republicans, indicated a willingness to work with Congress to revise the Authorization to Use Military Force and to consult on the most difficult foreign policy challenges he faces (China, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea).


However, he has also challenged Congress to legislate on the domestic issues that will both “build America back better” and strengthen his foreign policy hand. His intermestic policies are integral to restoring American leadership. For example:

  • His efforts to pass an ambitious infrastructure/jobs bill relate to his effort to join the other signatories to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change to bring greenhouse gas emissions under control;
  • His $1.9 trillion emergency COVID relief measure gives him the standing needed to energetically join the international effort to provide vaccines and equipment to countries in need;
  • His promise to reform U.S. immigration law and his commitment to help Central American nations overcome the factors that are causing an exodus of refugees is an important part of the global migration challenge;
  • His appeal to address domestic racial, gender and sexual preference disparities in policing, housing, voting, employment and education reinforces his message on human rights, and;
  • His focus on erasing economic inequities at home provides some solace to democracies wrestling with  populist movements around the globe.

Biden presents these domestic initiatives as a competitive challenge to demonstrate that the American democracy is capable of innovation and self-correction. This, he says, is a test to show that democracy remains the most effective model, the counterpoint to the world’s autocracies. 

Perhaps more than at any time in the post-World War II era, a president’s ability to succeed at home will determine his success abroad. None of this will be easy given the skepticism of America’s allies after four years of “America First,” and the polarized domestic polity in which we live today. 

Opposition to the Biden agenda seems to be primarily a zero-sum political calculation: success by one party is seen as defeat for the other. But there is also an underlying ideological debate that has historical antecedents. 

The size of the government interventions Biden has proposed has brought out the fiscal hawks and some legitimate worries about inflation. Yet, the very low interest rate on government debt, reassuring statements by Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet YellenJanet Louise YellenWhy the Democrats need Joe Manchin On The Money: Democrats wary of emerging bipartisan infrastructure deal, warn of time crunch New report reignites push for wealth tax MORE, and the political vulnerability of those who voted to add to the deficit by decreasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations during the Trump years have combined to mute the criticism.


The Republican opposition seems distracted, focusing on culture wars and Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump DOJ demanded metadata on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, Apple says Putin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE’s “big lie” about the last election. However, there remains an underlying ideological dispute that continues to color the attitude of each party. It may have started after World War I with a debate between John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek over the roles of government and the private market in a democratic capitalist society.

Hayek saw government intervention, particularly in emergency situations, as a potential threat to individual liberty. “Emergencies,” he said, “have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.” 

Keynes had a different view of individual freedom. He saw government as a resource for a more equitable society. He promoted the deficit spending policies of the Franklin Roosevelt administration to create jobs to extricate the economy from the depths of the great depression.

While Hayek’s views tempered over time, University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman doubled down on Hayek’s skepticism of government; he put his faith almost entirely in the marketplace. He believed, in the words of Keynes biographer Zachary Carter, “that freedom was to be found not in humanity’s capacity for self-government but in the ability of each individual to participate in a market.”

Whereas Friedman feared that government intervention would compromise “political freedom,” Keynes believed that “freedom included a guarantee of material security…” He in turn worried that desperation on the part of the poor would lead to political extremism. 

During the Cold War this debate took on a very bitter and personalized character. McCarthyism attacked the advocates of government spending as “socialists.” The acolytes of former Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) saw this as one step away from communism. 

Despite the progress made by both major political parties in creating a more equitable society and defeating communism, we still hear echoes of that divisive debate. Government programs designed to offer “bottom up” economic progress are described as “socialism.” Many on the right openly express the fear that programs to improve the social safety net will become popular thus adding to the non-discretionary portion of the federal budget.

Will competition with the world’s autocracies be enough to motivate bipartisan cooperation and reaffirm American leadership? Or, will contemporary politics and old debates over the roles of government and the market, mostly settled, weaken U.S. efforts to resolve global threats?

It seems apparent to this observer that, while the world’s democracies may not want an America as dominant as it was in the 1990s, they do want Joe Biden to succeed in his intermestic endeavors.

Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He served as a U.S. Senate staffer in the 1970s and as assistant secretary of State for Congressional Relations in the Carter administration. He was an undersecretary of State and administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration.